The Third Partition of Bengal
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The Third Partition of Bengal

By Avik Chattopadhyay

The Third Partition of Bengal

The results are out, and the mandate is clear. Or is it?

The 38.13% of the overall votes went to a political party that fought the elections primarily on lines of faith and religious identity. Even if half the people who voted for them were looking for an alternative to the ruling party, the other half-consciously voted to bring in a fundamentalist theology.

Bengal has been Partitioned, for the Third Time.

Less than a month back Bengal celebrated “Pohela Boishakh” the Bengali New Year. When I say ‘Bengal’ I mean both West Bengal and Bangladesh, for the two of them constitute what is Bengal. The day is an outcome of the agricultural taxation reforms brought in by the Mughal emperor Akbar when a new Bengali calendar was created merging the Islamic lunar and the Hindu solar calendars.

The celebration is equally rich on both sides of the border right from starting the day with Tagore’s song “Esho hey Boishakh” to the ‘Mangal Shobhayatra’ and the meal of ‘pantabhaat aar ilish bhaja’ [rice with Hilsa fry]. Looking at the celebrations in Dhaka and Kolkata one would imagine that Bengal is still one entity and the Partition never happened!

Illustration attribute: English translation of Tagore’s “Esho hey Boishakh”, source Gitabitaan: Boishakh, or Baisakh, is the first month of the Bengali calendar.

Illustration attribute: English translation of Tagore’s “Esho hey Boishakh”, source Gitabitaan: Boishakh, or Baisakh, is the first month of the Bengali calendar.

The concept of ‘Bengal’

It is a rare example of two political entities united by a common language and culture. Just like the two Germanys once. Religion and rituals take a back seat. The most important day for a Bangladeshi is ‘Shahid Dibosh’ or Martyrs’ Day on February 21st to remember the sacrifice of a few students in Dhaka who gave up their lives to police bullets to preserve the Bengali language against the Pakistani government! It is not about independence or a religious custom but the fierce preservation of one’s culture that takes precedence. The day is celebrated world-over as the ‘International Day of the Mother Tongue’.

The concept of Bengal is one of fierce independence, ability to question, the spirit of inquiry, the tendency to rebel, uphold its culture, promote the language, and open arms to everyone. Nobody is an outcast in the concept of Bengal, irrespective of provenance and faith. The entire region was so rebellious that time and again there were attempts to divide it into zones so that it could be administered better!

The First Partition of 1905

Even though the Mughals did contemplate carving Bengal into zones, as late as by Aurangzeb who was infuriated with the support the region gave to his estranged brother Shuja, better sense prevailed.

The first partition of Bengal actually happened in 1905 under British rule led by Curzon. He took the excuse of the region is too big to administrate. The division was clearly on religious lines.

Map Attribute: Map showing the partition of Bengal into the province of Bengal and the province of Eastern Bengal and Assam in 1905. Source data: Survey of India 1:253k (Perry-Castenada Map Library, Univ of Texas), India 1:1M, Imperial Gazetteer of India 1:4M (Digital South Asia Library, Univ of Chicago).

The map shows the primarily Hindu-dominated areas forming the Bengal Presidency on the left in the darker colors, including Odisha and Bihar. Murshidabad was an exception. The other part on the right, Muslim dominated, included Assam and the entire North East, in the lighter colors called East Bengal. “Administrative ease” was a poor excuse for the British to employ their famed ‘Divide and Rule' policy.

The landed gentry on both sides was extremely pleased for individual benefits. The poor Muslims of East Bengal felt justice was done to them as their plight was being focused on. But that was a ruse to drive jealousy, fear, anxiety, and fundamentalism within the two communities.

The protests of the common people in the Presidency, led by a few intellectuals like Tagore and extremists like Aurobindo and Tilak finally saw the eastern part being united back into the Presidency in 1911 when the British decided to shift the capital from Calcutta to Delhi. Now it was only the Bengali speaking areas leaving out Odisha, Bihar, Assam, and the North East.

In true rebellious fashion, the Bengali had proven a point, for the rest of the colonized land to take inspiration from. But the seeds of mutual disbelief driven by faith were sown, to the delight of the British.

The Second Partition of 1947

This was the inevitability of political selfishness and impatience of a few who led the entire freedom struggle quite adeptly till the point they realized the British might finally pull out. Bengal and Punjab are the two regions that faced the brunt of a man’s casual play with a pen on a map. The task was to divide into lines of faith, so Radcliffe had Curzon’s map to replicate. Sindh was totally gone, leaving the community without any piece that they could call ‘homeland’.

The rest of India, even today, cannot fathom the emotional trauma the Bengali [and the Punjabi and Sindhi] went through for decades together. The Calcutta riots of 1946 were a sign of things to befall a few months later.

Image Attribute: Vultures feeding on corpses in the 1946 riots in Calcutta – an iconic pic by Margaret Bourke-White for Life magazine, courtesy Getty Images.

Image Attribute: Vultures feeding on corpses in the 1946 riots in Calcutta – an iconic pic by Margaret Bourke-White for Life magazine, courtesy Getty Images.

There were some regional leaders who opposed the proposed partition and even floated the concept of United Bengal as an independent state altogether, joining neither India nor Pakistan. Hindus and Muslims came together for this, led by people like Sarat Chandra Bose and Husayn Surhawardy.

Opposing the partition of Bengal, Krishak Praja Party’s Syed Habib-ul-Rahman had said, "…both Hindus and Muslims, live in a common motherland, use the offshoots of a common language and literature, and are proud of the noble heritage of a common Hindu and Muslim culture, developed through centuries of residence in a common land".

This was in direct conflict with the objectives of both the Congress and the Muslim League and it found no national support. Bengal had once again acted the rebel but was totally outnumbered.


Map Attribute: Tariq Amir,

The “Decline” of Bengal

People write about the decline of [West] Bengal since the Naxalbari movement ignited in 1969 accelerated when the Communists came into power in 1977. This is lazy stereotyping.

The decline of Bengal started the day it was finally partitioned in 1947. The West was left with the factories and the East with the sources of raw material. The British sold off most of their industrial enterprises to traders and money lenders who had no intention of running them and saw them as prime real estate.

In 1952 the central finance minister T.T. Krishnamachari introduced the “Freight Equalisation Scheme” under which minerals and raw material like coal, bauxite, cement, and iron ore could be taken out of mineral-rich states like West Bengal, Bihar, and Odisha to any other part of the country for setting up industries, without paying any freight! The industrialists in the West, North, and South who had ably funded the Congress during the freedom struggle were given their reward. Not only did West Bengal lose all freight revenue, but industrialists had no incentive to set up units in the state. It was indelible damage that the state has still not been able to recover from.

Labour started moving to other parts of the country for work. Existing units closed down and unemployment loomed large in the 1960s. Unionism was on the rise. The new tea estate owners had no intention to carry on business but shutter them and sell them off. And Naxalbari was born!

Bengal gradually veered towards choosing the Left Front in 1971 which, in some time, went on to become the longest-serving democratically elected leftist government in the world! Bengal again rebelled against the mainstream.

The Home of Many ‘isms’

Communism. Extremism. Fundamentalism. Liberalism. Reformism. Post-modernism. Bengal is home to many ‘isms’. And these are equally adopted, debated, appreciated, and berated by all Bengalis as a community.

The Hindu Mahasabha had its germination in the Bengal Presidency in 1906 as an answer to the Muslim League being formed in East Bengal post the first partition. Malviya gave it the final shape, breaking away from the Congress in 1915.

The Communist movement in India has its roots in two pre-independence extreme-left political groups called Jugantar and Anushilan Samiti.

Socio-religious institutions like Ramakrishna Mission and Bharat Sevashram Sangha were born in Bengal. Post-independence they were joined by the likes of ISKCON and Ananda Marga.

The Bharatiya Jana Sangh and the Communist Party of India [Marxist] were born in Calcutta in 1951 and 1964, respectively.

The cultural ‘isms’ of Bengal are more enduring and inclusive. Rabindrasangeet and Nazrul Geeti are equally followed. Kirtan and Baul are equally loved. Michael and Bankim are equally debated. Kallol and Hungryalists are literary movements equally admired. The ‘Benarasi sari’ seems as if born in Bengal. So does the ‘salwar-kameez’. The ‘dhuti’ finds its sparring partner in the ‘lungi’. ‘Awadhi biryani’ is more at home in Calcutta as much as is the ‘rosogolla’.

Many say that “modernism” happened in Bengal only with the onset of the British. Another stereotype. Bengal was at the forefront of all forms of art and cuisine for centuries before the battle of Plassey. There are historical mentions of the industrial revolution happening in Bengal concurrent with that in Europe during the rule of the last independent Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud-Daulah!  

Unabated violence!

One of the current narratives in election-bound West Bengal is that it is a very violent place needing the polling in 8 phases across one full month! Elections have always been violent in Bengal, right since the provincial ones under the British. Bricks and bombs go hand in hand with ballots in this state. Political affiliations are extreme, be it against the British or the new brown colonizers.

For the average Bengali, the opponent is not evaluated as foreign or domestic. Every opponent needs to be put down, either by words and slogans or by threats and hooligans. The other side of the coin is the amazing creativity during every election campaign, right from the wall graphics to the songs and social media memes!

Image Attribute: Creative election meme doing the rounds in West Bengal, March 2021

Image Attribute: Creative election meme doing the rounds in West Bengal, March 2021

Every election has been violent in West Bengal and 2021 is no exception. Just that social media handles play a crucial role in spreading both facts and fiction faster and furious-er!

The Congress was actually the ‘creator’ of the concept called “booth capturing” in the 1971 elections which were taken to an art form by the Left Front. Just like the British invented the ‘concentration camp’ that was perfected by Nazi Germany! The period of 1971-1977 was possibly the most violent in the state with students and political opponents indiscriminately shot by the police in broad daylight. The Boronagar-Cossipore massacre of close to 300 left-leaning students in 1971 is just the top of the heap!

But India still thinks tomorrow!

Yet West Bengal carries on, in the spirit of one culture, language and ethos. It does lag behind the national averages on many parameters, but when it comes to the human development index, it scores higher than many other ‘model’ states.

Bengal demonstrates the philosophy that basic socio-cultural development comes before economic. It is quite different from how the rest of the country believes. It is as the Bengali says, “Only when I find joy in my literature, debate, drama, food, art and festivities can I approach life in a better manner. It is not that I do not need a job and a better life, but I need it with the eco-system around me and not in isolation.”

The mindset is inherently progressive and humane. It believes in inquiry and dialectics. It prefers to see the bigger picture than bother with immediate trifles. It might make you economically weaker than others for some time but sustainable in the long run.

Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.

- 1984, George Orwell

The Third Partition has Happened…

For the first time, elections were fought in the state with a clear focus on faith. Riots have been orchestrated before, but never the ballot. There was a clear narrative of the “majority” wanting to gain the upper hand while the “minority” wishes to carve out its pound of flesh.

Even within the majority, little clans were created and individually addressed to like the Matuas and Rajbanshis. Calls were openly made for people of one faith to come together and vote for one party while the other threatened the ‘other’ community with more killings by police bullets!

The wounds of partition that had been kept under check by successive governments irrespective of their ‘isms’ till 2020 have now been dug open. Development was promised on lines of faith and allegiance [the center-state ‘double engine’ dream] and not inclusion. Sections of the population lived in fear of being singled out and sent into detention camps. The other sections rejoiced at the very prospect!

Political scientist and professor Dr. Mehebub Sahana wrote an excellent piece in Clarion India on how “identity politics” is being now defined on religious lines over the last few years in the state. I show one infographic that shows the disturbing development of faith in the forefront!

Map attribute: Distribution of winning political parties in the 2016 State Assembly elections and the 2019 Parliamentary elections. Source – “Identity Politics of West Bengal” by Dr. Mehebub Sahana, University of Manchester, UK, 24 Nov 2020, Clarion India

Map attribute: Distribution of winning political parties in the 2016 State Assembly elections and the 2019 Parliamentary elections. Source – “Identity Politics of West Bengal” by Dr. Mehebub Sahana, University of Manchester, UK, 24 Nov 2020, Clarion India.

If the state is to fall, let it fall hard and fast. For it does not matter how many times you fall…it matters how many times you rise again. You may fall to the mere facts but rise again to preserve the greater truth. Just as Tagore talked about “Chhoto shotti” and “Boro shotti”, roughly translated as ‘fact’ and ‘truth’.

These are trying times for India’s most rebellious state.

I do not see the election results as a “glass half full”. Neither do I see it as half empty. I see it as a glass with water that is vicious and poisonous. It needs to be drained out, at the earliest. And some freshwater is needed.

Having gone through two partitions and decades of violence and deprivation, the Bengali holds each other’s hands through thick and thin, relegating faith to the background, bound by an intense urge to live better and enjoy a cultural milieu, across the border, together!

The togetherness is what is special and unique. It can be easily torn asunder by sowing seeds of fear, jealousy, and doubt, as has been done before, but the unique eco-system that is ‘Bengal’ and the rare creature that is ‘Bengali’ is extremely difficult to dismember!

I end my plea quoting Tagore once again from his composition of 1905 when the first partition happened…

Aami bhoy korbona,

Du byala moraar aage, morbo na bhai morbo na!

Tori khaani bayite gele, maajhe maajhe toofan mele,

Taai bole haal chhere diye, kanna kaati dhorbona.

Aami bhoy korbona!

[Translation: I shall not be afraid. I shall not die, now and then, before death! To encounter the storm while at sail is a routine, I shall not start crying frustrated. I shall not be afraid!]

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